Du Pont Storms Charleston

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard was as flamboyant by nature as by name, and during the first two years of the Civil War this quality, coupled all too often with a readiness to lay down the sword and take up the pen in defense of his reputation, had got this Confederate general into considerable trouble with Jefferson Davis, who sometimes found it difficult to abide his Creole touchiness off the field of battle for the sake of his undoubted abilities on it. Called “Old Bory” by his soldiers, though he was not yet forty-five, the hero of Sumter had twice been relieved of important commands: first in the east, where he had routed Irvin McDowell’s invasion attempt at Manassas; then in the west, where he had saved his badly outnumbered army by giving Henry Halleck the slip at Corinth.

In September, 1862, he was put in command of the Department of South Carolina and Georgia, with headquarters at the scene of his first glory, Charleston.

Here as elsewhere he saw his position as the hub of the wheel of war.

Defiant of Union sea power, Mobile, on the Gulf, and Wilmington, Savannah, and Charleston, on the Atlantic, remained in Confederate hands, and of these four it was clear at least to Beauregard that the one the Yankees were most likely to attack was the last, referred to in their journals as “the cradle of secession.” Industrious as always, the General was determined that this proud South Carolina city should not suffer the fate of his native New Orleans, whatever force was brought against it. Conducting frequent tours of inspection and keeping up as usual a voluminous correspondence, he relaxed from his manifold labors only when he slept, and even then he kept a pencil and a note pad under his pillow, ready to jot down any notion that might come to him in the night.

“Carolinians and Georgians!” he exhorted by proclamation. “The hour is at hand to prove your devotion to your country’s cause. Let all able-bodied men, from the seaboard to the mountains, rush to arms. Be not exacting in the choice of weapons; pikes and scythes will do for exterminating your enemies, spades and shovels for protecting your friends. To arms, fellow citizens! Come share with us our dangers, our brilliant success, or our glorious death.”

Two approaches to Charleston were available to the Federals. They could make an amphibious landing on one of the islands or up one of the inlets to the south, then swing northeastward up the mainland to move upon the city from the rear; or they could enter through the harbor itself, braving the massed batteries for the sake of a quick decision, however bloody. They had already tried the former method twice, but both times—first at Secessionville, three months before Beauregard’s return from the west in mid-September, and again at Pocotaligo, one month after he resumed command—they had been stopped and flung back on their naval support before they could gather momentum.

By the beginning of 1863, Beauregard correctly assumed that they would attempt the front-door approach, using their new flotilla of vaunted ironclads to spearhead the attack. If so, they were going to find they had taken on a good deal more than they had expected, for the harbor defenses had been greatly improved during the nearly two years that had elapsed since the war first opened here.

Fort Moultrie, Castle Pinckney, and Fort Sumter, respectively on Sullivan’s Island, off the mouth of the Cooper River, and opposite the entrance to the bay, had not only been strengthened, each in its own right, but were now supported by other fortifications constructed at intervals along the beach and connected by a continuous line of signal stations, making it possible for a central headquarters to direct and consolidate their fire. First Beauregard, then John Pemberton, and now Beauregard again—both accomplished engineers and artillerists, advised moreover by specialists as expert as themselves—had applied all their skill and knowledge to make the place as nearly impregnable as military science and Confederate resources would allow.

A total of seventy-seven guns of various calibers now frowned from their various embrasures. The channels were thickly sown with torpedoes—mines, they would be called now—and other obstructions, such as floating webs of hemp designed to entangle rudders and snarl propellers. Not content with this, the sad-eyed little Creole had not hesitated to dip into his limited supply of powder in order to improve the marksmanship of his cannoneers with frequent target practice, and had set marker buoys at known ranges in the bay, with the corresponding elevations chalked on the breeches of the guns. As a last-ditch measure of desperation, to be employed if all else failed, he encouraged the organization of a unit known as the Tigers, made up of hot-blooded volunteers whose assignment was to hurl explosives down the stacks and ventilators of such enemy ships as managed to break through the ring of fire and approach the fortress walls or the citv docks.

The ironclads might indeed be invincible; some said so, some said not; but one thing was fairly certain. The argument was likely to be settled on the day their owners tested them in Charleston Harbor.